The cause of the fire that destroyed 65 homes in and around Tathra is being put down to a tree falling on power lines, along Reedy creek road. To date there has been no mention of the Flora reserve, although the fire started near the south west corner of the Tanja section.

As indicted on blurry map below, showing recent koala records and the Forestry Corporation’s incomplete logging history, the fire traveled straight down the Bega River. Aided by 38 degree heat and strong north westerly winds, it jumped the river and took off toward Tathra.

Under these conditions there is nothing fire fighters can do to stop a fire so the town was mostly evacuated. I say mostly because many stayed behind, successfully defending their homes and no-one was killed or seriously injured.

Unfortunately roads into Tanja forest remain closed, while more trees are cut down for safety reasons. However, it is clear that locations where koalas were active, back in 2012, were burnt. While trusting there will be some effort to ascertain their fate, the fire has led to the inevitable concerns about the ‘bush’ and the threat it poses.

A coronal inquiry will be examining aspects of the fire, although whether its scope will be adequate remains unclear. For example, when Europeans invaded this country, there was tall open forest, not bush. This new bush generally has a contiguous fuel load from the ground to the tree tops. Consequently, it seems likely that convection currents and the capacity to both produce and more rapidly spread burning embers is increased.

Clearly the major reason for this threatening bush is decades of mismanagement. However, there will be the inevitable calls for more broad acre burning, even though it won’t help.
Similarly, I’m anticipating, should no evidence of koalas be found, that post fire salvage logging will be proposed, so the timber isn’t wasted.

On a positive note the ABC reported on the Federal government concerns that renewing the RFAs may lead to a legal challenge, because the information is old. From another perspective the information was old when the RFAs were agreed and nothing has changed since then.


Earlier this week, on ABC radio, Eurobodalla conservationist Mike Thompson spoke about the flora reserves and koalas. It seems Mike was responding to my most recent letter to the editor titled ‘Koala extinction plan on track’. Like most of the conservation movement on the south coast, Mike didn’t refer to dying forests.

Rather and among other things, he mentioned our local state parliament member, Andrew Constance. In particular Andrew’s statement that the flora reserves could be logged, in the future.

Mike suggested the best option for koalas is turning the reserves into National Park. If this happened, the management boards for Gulaga and Biamanga NPs may have an influence. Unfortunately, the boards don’t appear to have much influence over management in current National Parks.

What’s arguably more important, in the short term, are the details of the final working plan for the reserves. These may provide the leverage to modify the Regional Forest Agreements, given the federal koala listing. Naturally, there is no certainty and it will require going where the majority of the conservation prefer not to go. Particularly the dieback issue in National Parks and the associated inadequacy of state government forest regulations and management.


As reported in the Bega District News, on Thursday a workshop was held in an effort to re-introduce Aboriginal cultural burning. It brought together tablelands and coastal Aboriginals and there was a strong turnout of NSW government agencies. These included Local Land Services, Rural Fire Service, NSW Parks and Wildlife and the Forestry corporation.

Three sites have been selected at Wallagoot, Bermagui and Narooma, with the burns planned over four days in autumn.

While supportive of burning in grassy ecosystems, because there is evidence it increases the diversity of native grasses and herbaceous species. The article refers to observations indicating the ‘ bush is dense with native invasive species’ and burning will be undertaken in ‘different vegetation types’.

My concern is that the most influential of the agencies, Forestry Corp, believes burning is the cure for all forest health issues in all forest types. So it would be a shame if true cultural burning was somehow co-opted, to fit forestry’s single aim, further degrading all forests.

Similarly it would be a shame if such an outcome led to another falling out between Aboriginals. Apparently depicted in the painting above, is a battle back in 1825 at Barrabaroo (Yuin Aboriginal for ‘Fighting Ground’) Creek near Cobargo. Early settlers counted 70 bodies left on the grassy flood plains, after the battle between tablelands and coastal Aborigines.

As reported in the Bega District News, ” . . . The National Parks and Wildlife Service is hosting two sessions of what they describe as “open houses”, in January for locals and visitors to learn more about the recently created Murrah Flora Reserves.” The first of these sessions was held last Saturday at the Tanja Hall.

Unlike the previous koala information session held at the hall and funded by the Federal Government, there weren’t may cars outside. Upon entering the hall and also unlike the previous session, there wasn’t much information available either. At the time there four people attending the session, two OE&H employees and the most recent NPWS South Coast Director Kane Weeks.

There were three maps on the wall, a couple of A4 print outs on koala monitoring and attempts to grow trees, along with one research paper about fire.

One of the maps showed the vast area planned for regular burning. Another the most recent modeled koala use areas and another indicating areas with a larger volume of vertical fuel load.
Kane Weeks asked me what I thought about the burning proposal. I suggested that all of it has been logged and burned and in the process lost hundreds of tonnes of soil per hectare. The vertical fuel load comes from trees that, among other things, drop large amounts of litter that aids in restoring the soils.

Burning these areas eliminates the litter, so the process of soil restoration has to start again.

According to the final draft for the flora reserves, these matters are too complex. So I wasn’t surprised when Mr Weeks indicated the Forestry Corporation will have the final say on the reserve management plan.


Last year I wrote to the OE&H and Forestry Corporation requesting information relevant to management plan.

From Forestry I requested a document, referenced in the plan and titled ” FCNSW 2016, ‘Logging records for Mumbulla, Tanja, Murrah and Bermagui State Forests, Reserve numbers 187, 188, 189 and 190’, unpublished records compiled by the Forestry Commission of NSW, Eden”

This is the response Forestry sent on January 6.

Hi Robert
It would be best to check this information with the Office of Environment and Heritage who have prepared the draft plan. They would be best placed to advise exactly which documents or records this reference refers to.

I did ask about the document at the information session, but they didn’t know either. The OE&H has partly responded to my request, although the logging records document has been added to the list.

As reported in the Bega District News, this week the Forestry corporation and the OE&H released their long awaited final draft working plan, for the Murrah flora reserves.
According to the plan ” . . . The aim is that with the cessation of forestry and some specific management actions, koala recovery in the Murrah Flora Reserves and adjacent forest can be realised over time. This will be tested in the long term by monitoring and evaluation within an adaptive management framework.”

Regrettably, the OE&H’s adaptive management framework has some significant limitations. In particular the need to maintain the illusion, when prescriptions are followed, it regulates a sustainable logging industry. Hence the only referenced sentence on soils is ” . . . The steeper slopes are susceptible to erosion if disturbed (Tulau 1997).”

On forest condition the plan indicates ” . . . Mid storey structure and composition varies across the reserves, with a key management issue being the extent of black she-oak regrowth and other disturbance-generated tree and shrub species. These contribute to increased vertical fuel loads and prevent germination and regeneration of preferred koala species, particularly woollybutt.”

Another issue that could prevent the germination and regeneration of preferred koala species is soil loss and the associated reduction in soil fertility. For example, the harvesting plan for compartments 2080 and 2081, in Mumbulla SF and dated 11-8-1994, estimated an average of about 9.5 c/m of sawlogs and 85 tonnes of pulplogs per hectare would be removed in the operation. However, the estimated soil loss from the operation, only provided for cpt 2180, was 132.8 tonnes per hectare.

I recently revisited the vast area burned in the Cuttagee catchment, to get some shots of brown and dry vertical fuel loads, now some months after the fire. Coincidentally, I came across two of the recently established research plots. As indicated in the photo above, this one is on relatively flat ground. Some silvertop-ash and all the black she-oak have been cut down and placed into piles. Retained trees are mostly silertop-ash, a couple of spindly stringy-barks and a hickory wattle.Walking around the plot it was clear that all of the silver-top ash have coppiced, with multiple stems growing from the stumps. In addition there are dozens of hickory wattle seedlings in the plot. Both of these outcomes will increase vertical fuel loads, although unlike forest around the plot, these fuel loads won’t be brown and dry.

In the second plot below, on a steep slope, three large woollybuts have been retained  during logging and it appears all of the regrowth trees were black-oak. These have been cut down and placed as one would make a bonfire. It appears attempts were made to burn the bonfire, although the timber was clearly too wet to burn. Hickory wattle seedling were also evident in this plot, although there were fewer than the first plot, perhaps due to erosion of the exposed soils. 

Forestry and the OE&H are accepting comments on the plan until January 31, 2018.

Last year the OE&H suggested they were going to release their management plan for the Murrah Flora Reserve, in the middle of this year. Now six months on and with the festive season looming, it seems unlikely the plan will appear this year. While there may be several reasons for the delay, it is possible one of these is connected to the restructure of the NPSW and the recommendations of a report titled ‘Management of public land in NSW.’

The report was produced by the General purpose standing committee No.5, for the NSW Legislative Council in 2013. It suggests ” . . . that reservation is not the only means to protect biodiversity and that conservation outcomes can be achieved alongside other land uses. The Committee therefore recommends that there be investigation into the wider application of the multiple land-use model in public land management in New South Wales (Recommendation 1.2) in recognition that public lands can be managed for a range of purposes while achieving the best conservation outcomes for that land.”

Of course apart from National Parks, logging is only other use for public forests.

The report also indicates ” . . . The Inquiry also heard evidence that effective conservation management and planning is best done with a tenure-blind approach, working to improve natural vegetation corridors and ecological health across the landscape.” It goes on to recommend starting a nil or blind tenure approach ” . . . beginning with fire, pests and weeds and conservation management, to ensure consistency and improved land management outcomes for both public and private land managers. ”

The only issue is whether the current approach, in a different and one assumes cheaper format, will lead to improved land management outcomes.

When it comes to koalas, all the evidence confirms past and present management is essentially aimed at deforestation and species extinction. So while I expect no change in the NSW government’s approach, the Regional Forest Agreements were supposed to usher in some accountability.

Forestry were supposed to have a forest inventory, but they haven’t. Similarly the NPWS should be required to demonstrate its broad acre burning leads to improved outcomes, as opposed to an increased threat of wildfire.

Apart from threatening humans, the cost associated with current fire management include the loss of many species, like the large stick insect (Ctenomorpha chronus) in the photo.

Thankfully this one survived physical thinning of forest oaks, although the outcome from burning would have been a barbecued stick insect, all other  insect and any koalas in the area.

Following up on his book ‘Firestick Ecology’, former forester Vic Jurskis has written a paper, accepted for publication in Wildlife Research, titled ‘Ecological history of the koala and implications for management.’

According to Mr Jurskis, the decline in koala populations is not a crisis, rather koala numbers are returning to a pre-European state. The ‘eruptions’ in koala numbers, here 120 years ago and those of translocated island koalas in Victoria, is put down to poor management, particularly a lack of frequent burning.

In one press report he describes the creation of the Murrah Flora reserve as a perverse outcome for a species that was not recorded in the area at the time of European settlement. Exactly how he knows this and how this theory fits with his previous estimate of 800 to 1600 koalas in the Eden region isn’t clear.

I do recall the first time I met Vic, back in the 1990’s, not long after the 8 radio collared koalas had died. I informed him of koala pellets I located in Nullica State Forest, where two of the aforementioned koalas were tracked. His response was to say the two koalas, Robert and Roberta, were the only koalas in Nullica SF.

Vic’s simple theories have many holes, not least of these is the knowledge that the primary feed trees behind the ‘koala eruption’ in the Eden region are now endangered, because they don’t grow back. The evidence indicates secondary koala feed species are in the same boat.

So while I do agree with Vic, that forests need better management, that’s where the agreement ends. It is simply not possible to undertake low intensity burns in these forests, due to the previous and ongoing poor management.

However, I believe management aimed at reducing fuel loads would create employment, while providing some protection from wildfires and aid in funding real attempts to restore biodiversity. The photo shows the first of nine 10×10 metre plots, logged and burned in 1982, where the majority of forest oak have been removed. Apart from two retained trees, a Yellow stringy-bark and a Rough barked apple at the rear of the plot, only one very small and sick apple has regenerated in the plot.

The small dead trees in the plots, oak and silver-top ash, have mostly been converted to biochar, producing just over 500 litres or enough to spread half a litre per square metre. When the green wood dries, I’ll add another 50 litres to each plot.  In the bare areas I’ve begun planting Woollybutt seedlings and Yellow stringy- bark seed.

Unlike the OE&H’s approach, in the square metre around these plantings, I’m incorporating 350 grams of either dolomite or crushed sea-shells, with another litre of char and in some instances 250 grams of gypsum, into the first couple of inches of soil.

While there is uncertainty about whether they will grow, if they do it will be interesting to compare outcomes with the OE&H’s soils haven’t changed approach.

Spring has definitely sprung, although 30 degrees with a strong north-westerly wind does seem more consistent with an early summer. Perhaps more important is that this month, the eleventh day to be precise, is supposed to end to the six year regional federal and state funded koala projects.

Regrettably, there are still no reports for the ‘Foundations for River Recovery and Return of Koalas to the Bega Valley‘ project. Similarly there is still only one ,arguably irrelevant report for ‘Corridors and core habitat for koalas on the NSW Far South Coast’ project.

Of course time moves on and now, with the conservation movement calling for adaptive management, a reasonable question could ask about the degree to which our understanding of koalas and their habitat, has improved during this time. In addition, whether a similar sum ($13 million)could provide for more positive outcomes, given what has been learned.


The map above comes from the original for ‘Corridors and core habitat for koalas on the NSW Far South Coast’ project application.  It shows the areas defined as ‘core koala habitat’, aka logging exclusion areas. Areas proposed for revegetation with primary koala feed trees and theoretical corridors. Added to the map is the orange ellipse, indicating core habitat, recently burned.

One of the NSW government’s concerns was that a previously federally funded koala project, in an area it proposed for revegetation, had planted the trees incorrectly. Hence it had to be done again.
This suggestion forms the basis for the the NSW government’s general understanding of the environment. In essence that soil fertility never reduces, irrespective of how the land is managed. Of course this position may have changed since 2011, but to date, there is no evidence to prove it.

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